The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

This No-Mercy Assault On The mind and senses from British writer-director Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract) boasts a full menu: swearing, screwing, stealing, cooking, eating, drinking, burping, choking, vomiting, defecating, punching, kicking and killing. Oh, yes, there's a guy who enjoys reading, but he comes to a bad end.

Stunningly photographed by Sacha Vierny, this unnerving film takes place mostly in a cavernous French restaurant called Le Hollandais. The main room is dominated by a 1616 painting by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, A Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company. The dignity of the officers as they sup is a stark contrast to the crudity of the hoods who chow down before it.

Albert Spica, played by Michael Gambon is the head thief. He mistakenly thinks eating at Le Hollandais gives him class. The oinkish Albert bullies his cohorts and beats his tarted-up wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren). Gambon is stupendous, a roaring hound from hell. And Mirren is his match in a performance of mounting fervor.

It's not surprising that Georgina takes a lover, a bookish sort named Michael (Alan Howard) who often dines alone at the restaurant. Before long, Georgina and Michael are sneaking off to toilets and pantries for sex while Albert gorges on food. The restaurant's cook (Richard Bohringer) helps the lovers. Later, when Albert learns of their deception, he exacts a hideous revenge. And then Georgina goes him one better with a unique last supper. I'll spare you the details, but those with sensitive stomachs may bolt for the exits.

Let the watchdogs of morality cry foul. Greenaway, a painter, illustrator, novelist and scholar, insists that his film has historical precedents in satirical Jacobean drama and the violence of the theater of blood. Maybe so. But despite the lofty tone of his literary, artistic and metaphysical allusions, Greenaway is working the same streets of human depravity as John Waters; he's just more pretentious about it. At best, Greenaway's film is a provocative and diabolically funny foray into the roots of passion and cruelty. At worst, the symbolic bric-a-brac gets so thick you lose sight of the characters. You get a sneaking feeling that not all of the crocks in this movie are confined to the kitchen.

From The Archives Issue 576: April 19, 1990